Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Wallerstein on 'What New Strategy in Iraq?'

Commentary No. 200,
Jan. 1, 2007
"What New Strategy in Iraq?"

President George W. Bush has been proclaiming for a month now that he is in search of a "new strategy" for "victory" in Iraq, and that he is consulting far and wide about what this strategy will be. Given all the hints and leaks, there are few people waiting breathlessly for the presidential speech in which he will reveal his decisions. The new strategy promises to be the old strategy, with perhaps an additional small number of U.S. troops in Baghdad.

The president did admit for the very first time that the United States is not winning in Iraq yet, but it is not losing either, says he. The number of people, in the United States and elsewhere, who are convinced of this grows ever fewer. A poll taken in early December in six Western nations shows that 66% of Americans are in favor of withdrawal of coalition forces, and in Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, and France, the figures ran from 73 to 90 percent. As the Financial Times said in an editorial, "The United States has rarely been in greater need of friends and allies."

And on December 7, anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a Republican senator, Gordon Smith, who had supported the war from the beginning, announced he had changed position. "I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that any more."

So, why is Bush making a big show about a new strategy when he clearly intends to continue the old one? Two reasons: the November elections, and the Baker-Hamilton report. The elections showed Bush that the Iraq policy has caused serious inroads on the Republican party's electoral strength. It will clearly take more than firing Donald Rumsfeld to reverse the impending free fall for Republican candidates, particularly if 2007 brings increased casualty rates in Iraq, increased ethnic cleansing, a further decline in the dollar, and a further decline in the living standards of the bottom 80% of the U.S. population.

As for the Baker-Hamilton report, its opening sentence is "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." Much of the discussion of this report has been about whether the Iraq Study Group could convince Bush to follow its numerous and not all that daring suggestions for change. But this was never its purpose. Neither Baker nor Hamilton is a fool. Both are old pros in U.S. politics. The purpose of the report was to legitimate criticism from the traditional Establishment center of U.S. political life, and it has clearly unleashed that. Witness Senator Smith's statement. Witness the increased boldness of military officers in making their deep skepticism public.

So what will happen now? Bush will push through the plan for more U.S. troops. As every serious commentator has pointed out, this will make no military difference. Of course, if the United States sent in 300,000 troops, it might quash both the insurgency and the civil war. But sending in even 30,000 troops will be an incredible strain on the viability and morale of the U.S. military. By June 2007, at the latest, it will be clear to even the most stubbornly blind, like George W. Bush and the surviving neo-cons, that the United States is in a dead end and bleeding badly.

Why doesn't Bush then cut his losses? He can't. His entire presidency revolves around the Iraq war. If he tries to cut his losses, he admits that he is responsible for a national disaster. So he has no choice but to try to bluff his way into 2009 and turn over the disaster to someone else. That is, he has no choice acceptable to him. But Bush is going to learn something in the next eighteen months. The situation is out of control and even the president of the United States can be forced to do things he finds abhorrent.

First of all, there is the pressure of the U.S. electorate, and therefore of the politicians. The number of rational Republicans and timid Democrats who are willing to move away from the war is growing daily. We already see this in the statement of Senator Joseph Biden - one of the Democrat's more conservative senators, and incoming chair of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee - that he will hold hearings (clearly hostile hearings) on the proposal of a troop surge in Iraq. My guess is that, in the heated Democratic in-fighting over the presidential nomination, there will be a thrust - slow at first and then very speedy - to an openly antiwar position. We see this in the positions being taken by presidential aspirants Barack Obama and John Edwards. Hillary Clinton will not be too far behind for long. And as that happens, either the Republican hopefuls match this or doom themselves to losing the election.

Then there are the generals. It seems that the new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was given the job of bringing the dissenting military into line. General John Abizaid is 'retiring' in a few months and General George Casey has blunted his open opposition. Gates has probably put pressure on himself to go along as well. But how long will this last? Six months at the outside.Life is difficult for a commander-in-chief who loses wars. That is true anywhere and everywhere. It will not be different in the United States of America.

Immanuel Wallerstein


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